Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet
Letters To A Young Teacher
Bruce, you write, “Aren’t there more direct, fun, practical, and effective ways to work with how we react to stimuli from within and without besides endlessly getting people in and out of a chair?” My AT teacher at school would probably say: “Chair work will indirectly affect their use in everyday life – let them make the transfer.” So how does that tie in with your take on teaching “activity work”, which to my mind is not indirect, but direct?
Thank you for your good question. My understanding is that when Alexander spoke of working indirectly he meant that when a person comes to you with a specific problem, let’s say, a frozen shoulder, working directly would be choosing to work immediately to regain range and comfort in the shoulder, through working on the shoulder. A reasonable idea. The approach in Alexander Work, if we are sticking to the principle of working indirectly, is to attend to a person’s overall integration and coordination, and in turn that may, (and may not), resolve the shoulder issue.
It’s a bit like family therapy. Let’s say the whole body is the family, and the hurting child is the frozen shoulder. The parents are fighting, a lot. The kid begins developing asthmatic symptoms. The problem may not lie within the child, but within the family dynamics as a whole. By the parent’s shifting their way of functioning, their child may begin to function differently as well. That, as I understand Mr. Alexander, is what he meant by working indirectly. Indirectly, that is, getting to the part through the whole.
Once you begin to get this idea of working indirectly, you begin to see that Alexander stumbled upon a very big idea, one that, now, everyone understands. If bees are beginning to disappear, or tree frogs, and you start looking for the cause inside the bee world, or the tree frog world instead of backing up and looking at the entire world they inhabit, their larger body, of which bees and tree frogs are an integral part, you won’t see the whole problem, or find the solution.
Alexander discerned an ecology within people, an inner ecology – the study of our inner house and home, in relation to our larger house and home. (You could say we are the overlap through which our inner and outer environments become one.) Alexander, seen in this light, was a holistic and ecological thinker and practitioner.
As for working through Alexander’s “conventional” procedures, that is, the procedures that have become the norm within today’s Alexander world, I am not an expert. Yes, I have worked with lots of teachers, including most of the first generation teachers who employed these procedures and, to the best of my limited ability, I have taught through these procedures as well. But I have spent more time learning about Alexander’s work through his less conventional procedures – walking, going up and down steps (lunge work is beautifully woven within this action), the performing arts, speaking, and everyday activities. These were the procedures that my mentor, Marj Barstow, enjoyed and explored. Consequently, these are the procedures I have taught through most successfully.
Over the years I began to sense that working through Marj’s procedures were, in a way, working too directly, too specifically, but for a very different reason than your teacher might think. I started to see that any activity happened within a larger context, and that I had to zoom both further in, and further out if I was to work holistically or ecologically. That’s why I no longer refer to what I do as “working in activity.” I call it “working situationally.”
For example, a young man is late. He jumps up from his desk, swings on his coat, hops in his car, squeals out his driveway, double parks, runs up three flights of stairs, knocks on his girlfriends apartment door, and waits, standing there, reliving that phone call, the fight they had that morning, feeling like a total jerk, wondering if she will open the door or not, whether she will ever speak to him again, whether she will call off their engagement, and what his parents will say.
Okay. You could work with this poor, distraught young man by taking him in and out of a chair, a la Alexander, or work with him driving his car, walking up steps, and knocking on a door, a la Marj Barstow. Still, are you really going to get to the precise inner and outer stimuli that cause this man to fall apart, to lose his psycho-physical composure, his integrity?
If I am going to work with this man in his entirety, in relation to his inner and outer home, then I may need to address such factors as his relationship to time, how he listens to his girlfriend when she is feeling insecure and starts criticizing him, how he reacts when he starts believing thoughts like his being a total jerk, or what happens to him when he starts caring too much about what other people think about him. But I am going to figure out a way to do this somatically and personally, not psychologically or clinically. I’m going to “stick to principle” and work as the Alexander teacher that I am.
Not our postural habits, nor our movements habits per se, (though they are part of the picture), but our habits of life, these are the habits we are attempting to unearth, and bring into the light of day, to be seen, felt, and known, accepted, and resolved. This is, for me, profoundly humbling work, both personally and as a teacher. Sometimes I wonder if I’m making any progress at all. I wonder if I will ever really be able to live and teach Alexander’s work. Forty years later, I begin to understand Marj when she would say, “I really don’t know how to teach this work.”
I really don’t.
Not knowing has for me become a good thing. It keeps me questioning, as you are questioning. It keeps me experimenting. It keeps the work fresh and alive in my soul, as it is in yours.
Let’s keep going.